Ukraine’s Mesopotamia

Peter Pomerantsev

Crimea is de facto frozen and now the focus is on Eastern Ukraine. Putin says he hopes he won’t have to invade – unless the locals really need his help. Kharkiv is a focal point: Ukraine’s second largest city, right on the border with Russia. it's where Yanukovich fled (or was told to flee) after he decided he couldn’t hold Kiev. It's where crowds turned out to defend the local statue of Lenin from being pulled down by pro-Majdan activists. It's where, it was briefly thought, a separatist leader might announce a breakaway Eastern Ukraine. The choice would be symbolic: Kharkiv was the capital of Soviet Ukraine up until 1934. It had always been a town of merchants and traders, a town of movement and wandering, but in the Soviet Union it also became a military-industrial centre. It’s now officially defined as ‘Russian speaking’ while the surrounding countryside is ‘Ukrainian speaking’. The writer, poet, leftwing activist, academic and ska group front man Serhiy Zhadan talks of ‘surfing languages’ in the city: one person can be speaking Russian and the other Ukrainian in the same conversation; or the language can change as the subject changes (Russian for oil business; Ukrainian for horse trading).

Zhadan, maybe the most famous of the new generation of Ukrainian (language) writers, has made Kharkiv his canvas (he is also popular in Russia, especially in Elena Fanailova's translations). He is often compared to Irvine Welsh, both for his use of local slang and for his choice of heroes: losers, gangsters, ‘the sad demons of satellite towns’. A break from the Ukrainian heritage of tortured poets as heroes. In his poem ‘Lukoil’, semi-criminal oil-traders come to drink at the grave of a dead colleague, Kolya:

They cry into the their Dolce and Gabbana suits and drink Hennessy from plastic cups,
‘Here you go Kolya’ they say, ‘here’s your 10 per cent cut,
On the infinite fields of offshore companies we are shot down like wild geese with gunshot in their livers.
Death is a land where our credit cards don’t work,
Death is a land of black oil that will wash away his sins!

The heroes of his short stories are on roads to nowhere, their journeys ending suddenly and violently: a hopeless lover tries to bluff his way across the EU border; a hash dealer does his final rounds before he is busted; a hooligan make his way home after being knifed at an away game:

Limping with a hole in his stomach, blood seeping through his fingers, along train lines of rusted metal, endless cisterns of oil and containers of dark, aromatic coal, as if someone behind his back was packing up the whole theatre set, sending it somewhere to the north, leaving in the warm, May, semi-light metallic constructions, the naked carcass, the emptiness of the Donbass.

In ‘The Ticket Desk Gives No Receipts’ the journey never even starts. A poor young man has fallen in love with a rich older woman. He buys a train ticket to go and visit her: she phones to tell him he shouldn’t come. He returns the ticket. Then she phones to say she’s changed her mind and he should come after all. But at the ticket desk he’s told there are no tickets left. He buys a ticket form some black market hawks but it turns out to be fake. He phones the woman to say he can’t come, then manages to procure a real ticket from some soldiers and phones again to say he’s on his way: to which she answers she’s already taken a train herself and is on her way to see him. But when her train arrives she’s not on it: she had to go to another town on business.

It’s easy (almost too easy) to read the story of recent Ukrainian history in these failed journeys: a country ever in transition, never quite leaving Russia’s orbit or its Soviet past. But for all his painful realism Zhadan’s writing often come with a twist: poems and stories that start off sounding almost like news reports or bar chat end with mystic visions. A killer riding his bike through an industrial town metamorphoses into a folkloric demon. After a shoot out the souls of dead currency exchange operators risw above the tram-wires of Kharkiv. Cynical heroes reach towards the highest emotions: ‘Love is when you want to have children after the currency’s defaulted’. At the end of 'Lukoil', when the mourners are asleep after three days of drinking, Kolya wakes in his grave, climbs out, walks up to his sleeping friends

and very quietly,
so as not to wake them,
steals a Nokia phone charger,
and returns to hell and to his blondes.

It’s these twists that make Zhadan a curiously hopeful, almost utopian writer. His newest book is called Mesopotamia (Kharkiv lies between two rivers).

Last week, Zhadan and another hundred or so pro-Majdan activists stormed the regional government building and barricaded themselves inside. On 1 March a crowd of several thousand turned up for a rally to show their anger at the revolution in Kiev. It was organised by the mayor of Kharkiv, Grigoriy Kernes, nicknamed ‘Gepa’. In the 1990s he was sentenced to three years for hooliganism and fraud (but got off the full sentence by co-operating with the prosecution). When Yanukovich fell, Kernes ran to Russia – though he soon returned saying he had just been on a quick break in Geneva.

Many of the protesters were local, though some appear to have been bussed in from across the Russian border in Belgorod. As the day went on they got louder and angrier, and as a pop singer on the stage sang ‘Our Kharkiv’, men with bats and guns stormed the building. The Majdan protesters were led out. They were told to get down on their knees and crawl through the crowd who were spitting and kicking them, shouting: ‘Kharkiv! Kharkiv!’ Zhadan was hit over the head with a bat from behind: he has concussion, his head is split open, and his nose broken. He refused to get down on his knees and was led away by police. Many other activists, including children, bloody and bruised, were taken onto the stage in front of the crowd of thousands. They were told to kneel and beg forgiveness. The police stood by. The girls were forced to stand by the metro station where passers-by screamed ‘whores!’ at them. A pro-Kremlin activist who had come down for the event from Moscow climbed to the top of the building, removed the Ukrainian flag and planted a Russian one instead. Gepa has since had the flag taken down.


  • 4 March 2014 at 6:15pm
    Giuliano says:
    Here is an interview which Zhadan gave late last year to Dmitry Raider for the Russian publication and which I have translated for my blog:

  • 5 March 2014 at 9:54am
    diamond says:
    I've managed to get Depeche Mode, but is there anything else by Serhiy Zhadan in English translation?

  • 7 March 2014 at 10:03pm
    taran says:
    There is an excerpt in Best European Fiction 2012 by Dalkey Archive Press.
    It's titled “The Owners,” and comes from Гімн демократичної молоді (Anthem of Democratic Youth).